How not to argue ethics

Every now and then, but more frequently than I’d like, something like this pops up on the internet or on Facebook:

If you don’t believe in things like smoking pot or gay marriage (or abortion, or other activist campaign), just remember that you don’t have to engage in those activities if you don’t want to.

As though that were the entirety of the argument.

It’s not.  Here’s why.

This is not an argument in any sense of the word.  This is an appeal to emotion.  It is also a category fallacy (more on that in just a moment).  And most importantly, it’s not an argument because there is a premise lurking in the shadows that, if shown, expose the whole ‘argument’ for a sham.

The reasoning works if and only if  morality is only a personal preference, and  as a result the alternatives of a given wanna-be-argument are morally equivalent.  That is, after all, how these things are often regarded.

But those happen to be the very things that are up for debate, are they not?  The whole argument stands or falls on those premises, but we are being asked to concede them as true with no discussion.

1) Morality as personal preference

It is borderline absurd to treat ethics as a matter of personal preference, mostly because this is a category fallacy.  Do we simply prefer one argument over another?

Let’s apply this ‘reasoning’ to other ethically shady doings:

Don’t like slavery?  Fine.  Think it wrong all you like, but remember–nobody is making you own slaves.

Believe that the genocide in Darfur is wrong?  Go right ahead, that’s your preference.

Don’t like abortion?  Don’t get one.

In each case, the issue gets mischaracterized from the get-go and treated as something it’s not.  But if the real ethical questions were to be raised, like…whether or not it really is a matter of preference, or whether or not the alternatives given are morally equivalent, the discussion would take a drastic turn into objective morality.  It doesn’t mean that someone cannot make the case that two sides of a given issue are morally equivalent (sometimes they might be), but it does mean that pandering to preference meets its demise.

So keep an eye out for the language of preference in ethical issues…and break out the flashlight and start looking for the hidden premises when you see it.

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